We Won’t Back Down, Either

Have you heard the buzz around “Won’t Back Down,” a major new Hollywood movie opening here in three weeks? It’s time for that buzz to start sounding like a swarm of angry bees coming from anyone who cares about our public schools. Here’s why.

The film, which was shot here in Pittsburgh and also set in our fair city, claims to be “inspired by real events.” Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, it tells a stirring tale of parents fighting for their kids against downright cruel teachers and uncaring school administrators while also vilifying teachers’ unions. But there is absolutely no evidence that anything like the events depicted in the movie ever occurred in Pittsburgh. In fact, “Won’t Back Down” is very clearly an attempt to promote school privatization and ALEC-backed parent trigger laws, which have not even been on the radar screen here in Southwest Pennsylvania. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

The movie was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights. Parents Across America, a grassroots organization like ours fighting for public education on the national level, notes that, “Anschutz has also donated to Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes environmental regulations and union rights, and to the political career of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.” [Parents Across America alert, 8-12]

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (whom I had the honor of marching with when she was in town for Monday’s Labor Day Parade), points out that, “Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media … as way for him to promote their values.” In a piece last week in the Washington Post, Weingarten explains those values are “crystal clear”: Anschutz funds ALEC and a host of organizations that “operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests, and all of them actively oppose collective bargaining rights and other benefits for workers. Anschutz has also invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations such as the Promise Keepers, whose founder declared that ‘homosexuality is an abomination against almighty God,’ and organizations affiliated with Focus on the Family.” [Washington Post, 8-28-12]

These guys didn’t just go into filmmaking for the fun of it. They have a clear agenda. And this time they are pushing parent-trigger laws. These laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator.

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets.

Ironically, I have to point out that these anti-public good school privatizers got public tax-payer dollars to make their film. Yes, that’s right: we here in Pennsylvania extend a nice fat tax-credit to film companies to induce them to make their films in places like Pittsburgh. [See Pittsburgh Film Office, tax credit information.] Those are tax dollars we don’t see in state revenue and can’t use to support our public schools. Perhaps we need (some) tax credit programs, but it’s all about priorities: maybe we shouldn’t be giving our money to film makers who turn around and tell blatant lies about Pittsburgh, our schools, and our teachers while undermining public confidence in a crucial public resource.

But that’s just what this film is doing. And the filmmakers have had plenty of help spreading their message. Three weeks ago, CBS aired a concert called Teachers Rock, funded by Walmart, as a promotion for “Won’t Back Down,” with stars including Carrie Underwood, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Morrison, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Usher, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. [Business Wire, 7-24-12] And as I lamented yesterday in my open letter to President Obama’s senior education policy advisor, the Democrats stepped right in line with Republicans, both showing the film at their national conventions these past two weeks. [See “Dear Mr. Rodriguez…”]

You can be sure we’ll be hearing lots more about parent-trigger laws here in Pennsylvania, too. Proponents have already popped up in Harrisburg: back in June during the budget debates, House Bill 2352 wound up defeated, but it would have created a parent trigger law. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 6-27-12] Remember, this is where grassroots activism will make the difference: this past spring, Florida parent groups fought back against proposed parent trigger legislation and won after an intense battle. [Miami Herald, 3-9-12]

When the film opens across the country on September 28th, we will have an opportunity to weigh in on the conversation and many eyes will be on Pittsburgh. Let’s be ready! We will need to write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and engage our social networks to expose the real agenda behind “Won’t Back Down.” We’ll need to attend showings and discussions (stay tuned for more on those). We’ll need to let the country know what authentic parent engagement looks like, why we are fighting for public schools as a public good, and that we won’t back down.

7 thoughts on “We Won’t Back Down, Either

  1. Reblogged this on The Modern Pencil and commented:
    There is a fantastic Pittsburgh-based blog I would like to plug. Yinzercation wrote an excellent piece regarding the new film “Won’t Back Down”, starring heavy hitters and gaining media attention for spotlighting our troubled education system through dynamic storytelling of heroic parents trying to take back the school from the evil powers that have failed their children.

    In passing, the trailer says the movie is inspired by real events. Except that I have worked in the school system since 2007 and been in college here since 2005 and I have never heard this story or anything like it mentioned. Ever. Aside from the lack of historical accuracy, it proposes a questionable plan of action. The solution is a veneer of revolution with a dirty, privatized undercoat. This film perpetuates parent-trigger laws that allow for a school to be shut down then say- turned over to a charter school system or private system. Except it is a classic case of tyranny by the majority, using concerned parents as the impetus, thereby giving their cause the appearance of greater legitimacy on the surface, then ignoring the facts that this idea, this film reeks of astroturf organization, seeking to dismantle the public good that is education. Thus, it makes the parental involvement seem more like the Swift-boaters than like parents actually concerned for what goes on in the education system. Frankly, their being used by outside interests that see students and education as a product to be bought and sold, with dollar signs attached to bodies.

    Yinzercation is a blog that not only offers commentary (err…like me), but also engages in civic outreach and displays what genuine grassroots engagement looks like in the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvanian region. I highly encourage you to take ten minutes to read this post, then consider reading or following more of Yinzercation. Thanks.

    Not Backing Down Either,
    Modern Pencil

  2. I love this blog too!! So glad someone recommended it on one of the great Facebook pages that fight for teachers, children, and more. Just to let you know there was a case in California of a “parent trigger” but the real story is that the parents tried to take their names off the petition they had been duped into signing. The judge ruled in favor of the charter group that lied to the parents. So it went through illegally. Outrageous. But I’m in California where almost anything happens and it’s truly ugly. Thank you for all that you do!!!

  3. Please keep in mind that filmaking in Pttsburgh adds many dollars to the local economy though employment and spending on accommodation,pierogis,goods,entertainment,etc., which are all taxable expenditures.

    • Of course. I am not opposed to some well-conceived tax credit plans. As I point out in the previous piece on this film, however, I’m not happy when we hand out public dollars to a film company that makes a movie telling lies about our fair city. Many, many people worked on that film and had no idea what anti-public education forces were behind it (not to mention anti-union, anti-gay, anti-environmental, and anti-science).

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